Pay for Play?

Blogger's note: Interestingly enough, this started as notes for another audio blog. But when time ran short this afternoon to record/post it before I needed to do some things, and when I realized it read more like a post than an outline anyway, I figured I'd just blog it.

There have been quite a few high-profile cases regarding the receipt or alleged receipt of compensation by student athletes this past fall. Among them, the most high-profile was clearly Heisman Trophy winner and national champion Cam Newton, but there was also Georgia’s AJ Green, who sold a game-worn jersey (initial reports suggest it was to an agent) and Ohio State’s Terrelle “I Paid For My Tats” Pryor, and four of his teammates, who sold awards related to their playing at Ohio State.  In each case, the actions had the potential to lead to consequences and threaten the eligibility of the players in question, and in two of the three cases I just mentioned, there were penalties leveed in the form of missed games. The Ohio State situation was most curious: those athletes will begin their suspension—assuming they are true to their word to Jim Corleone Tressel and return for their senior season—this coming Fall. They were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, which in my opinion is related to the fact that everyone in a position to potentially discipline them: Tressel, the University, the Big Ten, and the NCAA—stood directly to benefit from them playing in that game.

I’ve never been one to believe that student athletes should be paid for their services, and don’t expect that I ever will be. I think every effort should be made to keep athletes from getting  into bed with agents or anyone representing the pro side of the game. But I’ve always maintained that the rules as they regard booster interaction and compensation should be examined and potentially relaxed. The fact that a coach risks sanctions for buying a player a cheeseburger borders on insanity, and it’s always been ridiculous to me that if, for example, you recruit a poor kid from Florida to a Midwestern program, the ability for anyone to pay for him to even visit home now and again does not exist. I think some things need to be put in place so that everything is above-board and above-ground, but common sense should prevail. And in the case of students selling things that belong to them? To me, once it’s your property, you can do with it as you will.

One final note on this: Professionally, I work in higher education, and I have a HUGE belief in college and its transformative nature. As such, it’s long been my argument that free access to a world-class education and near-endless resources related to its pursuit certainly qualify as payment for students-athletes’ services on the field or court.  But my continued thought has led me to this conclusion: Many of the young men in question—and I say young men because we are almost exclusively talking football and men’s basketball here—would not be attending college if not for their particular athletic skill. I liken it to reparations, and this is by no means to draw a parallel between college athletics and slavery, but merely to make a point. Now if I were alive a century and a half earlier and proposed reparations had taken place, I would have been granted 40 acres an a mule. That’s an excellent start—land upon which to erect a homestead, plenty to farm, and a beast of burden to assist in the process. Here’s the thing: I—and we’re talking 20th and 21st century Curtis—wouldn’t know a damn thing to do with it. I grew up in the city. I don’t know a thing about farming. So while something of great value would have been bestowed upon me, to me it’s just shy of worthless. So while these student athletes have access to something of great value, do they see it the same way?